Last week, I wrote a post about which active players should be inducted into the Hall of Fame. I didn’t expect it to be too controversial, but it generated a lot of conversation. The question: how should we treat PED users when their names come up for consideration on the Hall of Fame ballot?
My answer: absolutely not. Two big reasons why:
#1 It Wouldn’t Be Consistent With Hall of Fame Precedent
Precent is enormously important to the Hall of Fame. We find out which players are deserving of entry by comparing them to past players who were also granted entry. Like in common law tradition, we should make changes to this slowly and with extreme caution. Denying entry to PED users would be a gross violation of tradition.
Baseball has a long and storied history of cheating in dozens of different ways. Many of the greatest players of all time – all Hall of Fame inductees – were either caught cheating or have admitted to it afterwards. Some great examples:
- Legendary manager and third baseman John McGraw was notorious for tripping, blocking, and obstructing base runners. He used to hold on to players’ belts while they stood on 2nd base. One batter, knowing this was coming, once disconnected his belt, leaving it in McGraw’s hand while he scored. McGraw’s cheating single-handedly drove baseball to bring more than one umpire to games. Ty Cobb was a similarly dirty player.
- The ball-doctoring era. Some of baseball’s best pitchers of the middle of the century were infamous for doctoring balls. Yankee legend Whitey Ford used to cut balls with his wedding ring, or let Elston Howard do it when the umpires were calling. Gaylord Perry, one of the best pitchers of all time, wrote a book after his career about the myriad of tricks he used to doctor balls, increasing the life of his curveball considerably. His techniques became such a spectacle that he was routinely inspected on the mound, or asked to change his equipment. Perry would taunt umpires who would search him for vaseline by saying, ‘No, its not there.”
- Corked bats have been ubiquitous in baseball for some time. Sammy So isn’t (yet) a Hall of Famer, but he was famously caught in 2003 using a corked bat. Former Yankee great Graig Nettles once broke his bat (hitting a home run in the process), only to find dozens of super-balls spill out onto the field.
#2 We Don’t Know Who Used PEDs, Or What Their Effect Was
Who used PEDs? Go ahead, think of the list in your head. That list is incomplete. We know of a few high-profile players who were heavily suspected of using PEDs, a few who admitted it when asked under oath, a few names vaguely mentioned in the Mitchell Report, and a small number of positive drug tests. That’s it. The vast majority of PED users are likely anonymous.
When we start to penalize people for PED use, we are doing so using our impressions of those people. Many Hall of Fame voters proved this in the most recent HOF balloting, by publicly refusing to vote for Jeff Bagwell, on the basis that he “looked too good” to do it without performance enhancing drugs. Bagwell has never once been implicated in any way of using PEDs. How far should we carry the witch hunt? Should Alex Rodriguez be excluded, but Andy Pettitte be considered? Barry Bonds included, but Sammy So excluded?
And fact is, we don’t know what effect performance enhancing drugs had on players. Mark McGuire was a tremendous home run masher when he was 16 years old. I believe he still holds the home run record for high schoolers in California. Maybe steroids added a few to this total, or maybe he was going to break records all along. Does anyone think that Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens, or Pudge Rodriguez wouldn’t be clear Hall of Famers without PEDs? Those guys were elite talents from the moment they hit professional baseball. I’d argue that ball doctoring has a much clearer impact on the game than steroids.
Unless you want to 100% exclude anyone whose name has ever even sniffed PEDs, or people who had “suspicious performances” like Luis Gonzalez in 2001, there is no fair or equitable way to apply this standard. Furthermore, Jose Canseco has made it clear that PED use was commonplace in the 1980s, and possibly earlier. This is not a new phenomenon.
But that’s me. There is plenty of room for disagreement here. Discuss. Am I wrong? And if so, why?